Age Before Duty

| Learning | November 28, 2013

(My university has a large number of late-entry students, mostly middle aged women. I’m 20 but often mistaken for much younger, and am friendly with a lot of these women. I’ve just been invited to their daily post-class café visit, but I decline because I can’t spare the time.)

Middle-Aged Student #1: “I know how you feel. This course is full-on. I must spend at least 20 hours a week on the coursework.”

Middle-Aged Student #2: “I know! I had to quit my job, even. It’s so hard!”

Me: “Yeah, it’s pretty hard, isn’t it? I couldn’t work this year either. I’m just too busy!”

(Suddenly, the older students begin to laugh mockingly.)

Middle-Aged Student #1: “Oh, yeah. Must be so hard to be seventeen and living at home with your iPad, iPhone and brand clothes. You kids don’t know what busy is.”

Middle-Aged Student #2: “Yeah! When I was your age, I did college, work and a baby! And I know you spend half your time here texting, and you’ve even left to take calls from your boyfriend!”

Middle-Aged Student #3: “Things are so much harder when you’re a grown up, sweetie. I have a ten-year-old and a thirteen-year-old I need to take to two different schools every morning and pick up in the afternoon, not to mention housework and my husband.”

Middle-Aged Student #1: “God, if you’d just put in a little effort, you’d have plenty of time for a job as well. It’s sickening how kids just coast along these days. Your poor parents, having to pay for everything! It’s irresponsible of you not to have a job, you know. Life is not a free ride! If you were my daughter, I’d cut you off so you had to work!”

(By this point, I’ve had enough.)

Me: “Well, actually, last year I did have a job. Then earlier this year my mother became ill with a virus that left her with major brain damage and stripped away all of her short-term memory. She’s now as dependant as a toddler with little hope of recovery. My brother has Asperger’s Syndrome and is unable to cope with this, so he swings between suicidal and violent. As my father is deployed in Afghanistan, I am the only functional adult in the house and it is my job to care for both of them. This is a full-time job, and is also the reason I leave my phone on during lectures. I don’t have a boyfriend. Usually, it’s my mother calling to tell me she’s gone for a walk and gotten lost or my brother asking me to come home to protect him from himself.”

Middle-Aged Student #1: “But—”

Me: “I also have to do the housework, pay bills, organize my mother’s doctor appointments and drive her to them, grocery shop, cook, do laundry, iron, insurance claims, and somehow maintain a high enough GPA to still get accepted to medical school at the end of my undergraduate degree. As caring for my family takes most of the day, this means studying until 2 or 3 am every night.”

Middle-Aged Student #3: “But you still—”

Me: “I haven’t even slept since yesterday, because I spent all last night holding my mother while she cried, then talking my brother down before he punched holes in the walls of our rental house, and then dealing with a burst water heater that flooded the house.”

Middle-Aged Student #2: “Well, why don’t you get your family to help?”

Me: “Because we have no extended family here. We moved here two months before Mum got sick, so the rest of the family is on the other side of the country or overseas. And yes, you’re right, I do own some nice things that my parents bought for me. That is part of being from a family that has been very blessed. But let me tell you, I know exactly what it means when ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.'”

Middle-Aged Student #3: “But you’ve never mentioned any of this!”

Me: “The fact that I am able to come to uni at all is an amazing privilege. Why the hell would I complain about it? But, not having a job doesn’t make me lazy and doesn’t make me spoiled. Still, by all means, tell me how irresponsible I am. Educate me on grownup life.”

(The middle-aged students are all silent.)

Me: “Well, okay. I’m going to go and take my mother to see her neurologist now. Enjoy your coffee.”

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